5 Players That Will Make or Break the Titans' Defense
For much of the past decade, the Tennessee Titans have attempted to build their roster around a strong, physical defense that had the ability to set the tone early.
While those attempts have often come up short, none have failed quite as spectacularly as the 2012 defensive unit.
The Titans surrendered 29.4 points per game last season, the most in the NFL, and also finished near the bottom of the league in yards allowed, takeaways and overall time of possession.
Following the disastrous year, the Titans entered an offseason in which significant change was desperately needed.
Over the course of the last few months, the Titans have taken steps to rebuild the unit. The Titans added Gregg Williams as a senior assistant and signed a number of free agents that are in line for significant reps once the season rolls around.
However, for the unit to work its way into the top half of the league, the Titans must see improvements from some of the young players they hope to build their defense around.
1. Derrick Morgan, Defensive End
Despite the struggles of the defense, Derrick Morgan represented one of the few things the unit did right last year.
Over the course of Morgan's third season in the league, he began to show the ability that led the Titans to invest a first-round pick in him in 2010.
Pro Football Focus graded out Derrick Morgan as the fourth-best 4-3 defensive end in football last season. While that ranking may appear high, his ability to consistently pressure the quarterback should undoubtedly lead to more sacks this season.
If Morgan takes the next step, he can prove to be the difference maker the Titans have been missing on the defensive line since Albert Haynesworth's departure following the 2008 season.
With improved depth across the front seven, Morgan should face a fair amount of one-on-one matchups. He'll also be able to make an impact on a defense that needs a true superstar to free up the secondary and create the big plays needed in a Gregg Williams-type defense.
2. Zach Brown, Outside Linebacker
When the Titans drafted Zach Brown in the second round of the 2012 NFL draft, there was plenty of talk about his fear of contact and unwillingness to make plays in the backfield.
Following a stellar rookie campaign that saw Brown rack up 93 tackles, 5.5 sacks and three interceptions, there are no longer any doubts about how his skill set will transition to the pro game.
With reports recently surfacing that Brown played the entire year with a left shoulder injury that was repaired during this offseason, the expectations for Brown are even higher as he enters his sophomore season.
In a more aggressive defense, Brown's ability to slash through an offensive line and get to the quarterback should lead to plenty of opportunities to create big plays behind the line of scrimmage. Combined with his natural instincts in pass-coverage, Brown looks to be the most complete linebacker the Titans have had since Keith Bulluck.
With more pressure than ever on the front seven, Brown will need to continue to develop into an elite playmaker to free up the other linebackers to rush the passer and wreak havoc in the backfield.
3. Bernard Pollard, Strong Safety
While Morgan and Brown made this list primarily due to their performance and potential impact on the field, Bernard Pollard's importance is almost equally reliant on his ability to set a tone and take on a desperately needed leadership role in the locker room.
Though Pollard has bounced around the league over the last few years, his attitude and toughness have followed him at every stop.
Over the course of last season, the Titans safety play ranged from below average to simply awful. Their absolute lack of a player capable of laying the wood in the secondary cost them numerous times, as opposing quarterbacks picked them apart down the middle of the field.
While Pollard may not be a great option in coverage, his pure ability to punish opponents who try to make a play in front of him provides an intimidation factor that this team desperately needs.
4. Jurrell Casey, Defensive Tackle
As a rookie in 2011, Jurrell Casey looked like he could be the next dominant defensive tackle for the Tennessee Titans.
While 2012 didn't go quite as well as many had hoped, Casey still proved to have the ability to absorb blockers and occasionally make plays in the backfield.
Though Titans fans hope Casey can provide a number of stuffs and sacks throughout the course of the season, Casey's main impact will come as he frees up blitzers up the middle. He takes on blockers, which should allow Derrick Morgan, Kamerion Wimbley and Akeem Ayers to find favorable matchups coming off of the edge.
Casey is the lone Titans defensive end guaranteed of a starting spot heading into the regular season, and he needs to take advantage of the opportunity to establish himself as an upper-echelon defensive tackle in the NFL.
5. Akeem Ayers, Outside Linebacker
While Zach Brown will be used as a sideline-to-sideline linebacker that's biggest strength is his ability to cover ground against the run and against the pass, Akeem Ayers is going to serve as more of an attacking backer that will be asked to rush the passer often.
With the Titans introducing more of a multiple-look front, Ayers is in line to see his share of snaps at defensive end and will also play some 3-4 outside linebacker.
Though Ayers may not be quite as versatile of a 4-3 linebacker as Brown, his physicality and ability to line up across the front seven serves as a quality contrast and enables him to be used to create mismatches across the opposing offensive line.